Honest biologists like Sahotra Sarkar, that is. Unfortunately, the people that pushed the Texas anti-choice law are liars for Jesus, not biologists at all.
A recent friend-of-the-court filing in that case implicitly claims that biology – and therefore biologists – can tell when human life begins. The filing then goes on to claim explicitly that a vast majority of biologists agree on which particular point in fetal development actually marks the beginning of a human life.
Neither of those claims is true.
There is no definitive single marker for the moment when a zygote becomes “human” — we can’t even define satisfactorily what humanity means, but one thing for sure, it’s not going to be discovered by molecular biologists. Maybe by philosophers or artists or writers or something, but I suspect that if you asked them, they’d all shrug and say they don’t know either.
As a developmental biologist, I’m satisfied with the idea that a human being emerges gradually from progressive interactions between cells and environment — it is not a unitary thing, and therefore doesn’t have a single discrete point of appearance. That’s been the position of informed scientists since roughly Aristotle.
That doesn’t stop the liars for Jesus from pretending that biology supports their claim.
The most recent high-profile example of this claim is in that amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court in the Mississippi case.
The brief, coordinated by a University of Chicago graduate student in comparative human development, Steven Andrew Jacobs, is based on a problematic piece of research Jacobs conducted. He now seeks to enter it into the public record to influence U.S. law.
First, Jacobs carried out a survey, supposedly representative of all Americans, by seeking potential participants on the Amazon Mechanical Turk crowdsourcing marketplace and accepting all 2,979 respondents who agreed to participate. He found that most of these respondents trust biologists over others – including religious leaders, voters, philosophers and Supreme Court justices – to determine when human life begins.
Then, he sent 62,469 biologists who could be identified from institutional faculty and researcher lists a separate survey, offering several options for when, biologically, human life might begin. He got 5,502 responses; 95% of those self-selected respondents said that life began at fertilization, when a sperm and egg merge to form a single-celled zygote.
That result is not a proper survey method and does not carry any statistical or scientific weight. It is like asking 100 people about their favorite sport, finding out that only the 37 football fans bothered to answer, and declaring that 100% of Americans love football.
In the end, just 70 of those 60,000-plus biologists supported Jacobs’ legal argument enough to sign the amicus brief, which makes a companion argument to the main case. That may well be because there is neither scientific consensus on the matter of when human life actually begins nor agreement that it is a question that biologists can answer using their science.
That is methodologically a terrible survey. I’d like to know the details of the question: the summary implies that they were given “options”…a multiple choice question? Was “This question is bullshit” one of the options? I think probably not. Just the idea of putting the question in the form of multiple choices or true/false limits the potential accuracy of the answer.
The bottom line is that ideas are being misrepresented by these supporters of abortion bans, and no, biologists cannot answer, or have a significantly more nuanced answer, than they want, so they are intentionally lying to the courts. Can we get ’em for perjury?
The overall point is that biology does not determine when human life begins. It is a question that can only be answered by appealing to our values, examining what we take to be human.
Perhaps biologists of the future will learn more. Until then, when human life begins during fetal developments is a question for philosophers and theologians. And policies based on an answer to that question will remain up to politicians – and judges.
Except, please, keep the theologians out of it. They’ve only got dogma, not evidence.